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$500,000 Settlement for Fatal Beating of Phoenix Jail Prisoner

by Matt Clarke

On June 3, 2009, the Maricopa County (Arizona) Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to settle for $500,000 a lawsuit brought by survivors of a man beat to death in the Fourth Avenue Jail of the Maricopa County Jail System. The jail is operated by sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self styled “toughest sheriff in America.”

Robert Cotton, 28, had been a pretrial detainee in the maximum-security unit of the jail for a little over a year when he was beaten to death by Pete Van Winkle. Cotton had a history of psychiatric problems and was taking Thorazine, Seroquel and Wellbutrin, medications for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, when admitted to the jail. He also had assisted the Mesa Police Department as an informant against the Aryan Brotherhood, an organized crime group prevalent in prisons and jails, but also present outside them. Van Winkle is an alleged member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

A month before he was murdered, the jail stopped giving Cotton his medication after he was accused of holding it in his cheek instead of swallowing it. He said he was just having a hard time swallowing it. Over the ensuing weeks, Cotton, who spoke with his mother on the telephone almost daily, reported feeling that he was loosing control. He also reported to her and jail officials having been attacked by other prisoners several times.
Thus, “the County had a Seriously Mentally ill inmate who was not medicated, felt like he was getting out of control, had been identified as an informant against the Aryan Brotherhood, had been beaten on a number of occasions by other inmates, and was being housed in the maximum security unit and not where be belonged in the mental health unit.” It is hardly surprising things went awry.

The jail has a hi-tech computerized digital camera monitoring and recording system manufactured by NICE Systems. It captured Van Winkle and three other prisoners meeting with Cotton in a recreation room four minutes before the beating began. They hold what appears to be a kangaroo court against Cotton. Van Winkle then escorts Cotton to a cell in which the video monitoring view is imperfect. However, less than a minute later, Cotton emerges from the cell fighting for his life.

Van Winkle beats, kicks, chokes and cuts Cotton for the next fifteen minutes undisturbed. After crushing and cutting Cotton’s throat and kicking his head, Van Winkle kicks the unresponsive Cotton multiple times to make sure he is dead. He tries unsuccessfully to throw the body off the walkway. Van Winkle then joins the other three prisoners, who have been loitering nearby, gets a drink of water, and lies down on the floor to await detention by guards who finally show up long after Cotton is dead.

Cotton’s mother and three daughters entered into mediation with Maricopa County, asking for $2 million. During mediation, it was discovered that Van Winkle was involved in another assault, captured on video and without intervention by guards. The same guard who was supposed to be monitoring the cameras when Van Winkle murdered Cotton was supposed to be monitoring the cameras during the new incident. Also, statements by the jail’s commander made it clear that he knew little about prison gangs and how much of a problem he had with them at the jail. This spurred the county to settle for $500,000, which officials claimed would be less than the cost of litigating. The survivors were represented by PLN subscriber and Phoenix attorney Joel B. Robbins.

Sources: Medication Documents, Cotton v. Arpaio before the Hon. Chris Skelly, Arizona Republic,

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Related legal case

Cotton v. Arpaio